Palestinian protesters disrupted a citizens peace conference in Ramallah on Thursday, throwing stones at the meeting site until Palestinian Authority police were forced to intervene and usher the activists to safety.
More than 20 Israelis and 30 Palestinians gathered in the City Inn hotel in the West Bank city for the first day of the Public Negotiating Congress, a grass-roots conference that brings citizens delegations from both sides together to negotiate an end to the decades-long conflict.
Titled "Ordinary People Make History," the conference puts on the table all core issues dogging the diplomatic negotiations and gives the delegations and audience five sessions over two days to negotiate an agreement.
The 24 such congresses held in recent years have yielded many agreements, which differ according to the changing makeup of delegations that include citizens from all over the political map, including religious participants and settlers.
"We discuss everything (facing negotiators), from how to build trust to the basic issues of the negotiations, including settlements, prisoners, borders," said Wissam Sader, a Palestinian from east Jerusalem who helped organize the congress.
Organizers were thrilled to bring the congress to Ramallah for the first time, with all necessary permits for Israelis and coordination with the Palestinian Authority police, but were disappointed authorities decided to keep the event indoors. Usually, the meetings are held in open-air public spaces to encourage people to take part.
Word of the gathering spread around town, and activists gathered outside the hotel, throwing rocks and breaking windows. The Palestinian Authority police asked organizers to cut the event short, kept participants safe and escorted the Israeli delegation out of Ramallah.
Some demonstrators didn't really know what was taking place inside the hotel, according to Sader. Others knew but object to any hint of normalizing relations with Israelis. Protesters carried signs saying "normalization is treason" and "inside this hall sit Israeli officers that kill our children," the Palestinian news agency Maan reported.
A previous gathering held last fall in downtown Jerusalem, which attracted an audience of hundreds, was also cut short after heated arguments deteriorated into a brawl, forcing organizers to postpone the second half by two weeks.
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"This is the main idea," said Sader, who thinks it was a mistake to keep the public from the event.
Delegates meeting Thursday morning talked about confidence-building measures. These discussions reportedly went well, with both sides reaching agreement on a number of key issues such as the importance of establishing a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders and a gradual release of Palestinian prisoners, all before dinner. Future relations and cooperation between the peoples were also being discussed.
"We are already used to this," said Sader. "Both sides have their extremists, but they won't stop us." He invited the public to the second day of negotiations, being held Friday at the Ambassador Hotel in Jerusalem.
The congress has a message for the statesmen negotiating the real deal, he said. "We want to show the leaders how an agreement can be reached in two days. Why waste 20 years? Both peoples are suffering."